Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will return to Donald Trump’s “Winter White House” in Mar-a-Lago, Florida on April 17-18 for his third summit with the U.S. president. The meeting comes at a critical time: not only ahead of Trump’s planned talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un next month and amid early warning shots in a potential U.S.-China trade war, but also during a particularly weak phase of Abe’s political standing in Japan that have some wondering if this sixth year in power could be his last.
When Abe visited Mar-a-Lago last February, his cabinet’s approval rating hovered around 60 percent and all eyes were on the budding “Shinzo-Donald” relationship. Now Abe’s support has fallen to 38 percent (or less) and slipped below his disapproval rate. Although Trump fares no better in the polls, he is no longer a brand new president, and he appears more self-confident in the role.
It is worth considering what these two leaders’ political fortunes tell us about the long-term stability of U.S.-Japan alliance management and the mutual benefit it delivers, because this should always be the main agenda item for any summit. This time the key issues are mutual security reassurances and stepping away from trade protectionism, as we keep an eye on the underlying political dynamics in both countries.
Abe’s political standing in Japan is being undermined on multiple fronts. The government’s use of flawed data earlier this year stifled Abe’s signature effort for labor policy reform. Later, the Ministry of Finance’s alteration of documents related to a sweetheart land sale for people connected to Abe and his wife raised public suspicion of favoritism and a cover-up. Then the Ministry of Defense reported record-keeping failures and lapses of informing the legislature on Japan’s Self-Defense Force activities abroad, prompting further questions about the government’s trustworthiness and even its ability to exert civilian control of the military.
These governing snafus have implications for the future. In the short term, scandals at home divert Abe’s energy from vital foreign policy issues at hand, and they could lower his standing in the eyes of Trump. In the medium term, evaporating political support will diminish Abe’s chances of re-election this fall as the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) president, which would mean a new prime minister and cabinet. Abe’s potential challengers from within the LDP, such as Shigeru Ishiba and Shinjiro Koizumi, have been openly critical of Abe’s leadership on these issues, joined of course by the political opposition.
Potentially more important and often overlooked, however, are longer-term implications of the current turmoil for public trust in government competence and its accountability to the people. It was concern in these areas that led to a previous erosion of support for the LDP in 2009 and ushered in a change of party power for only the second time in over 50 years, with the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) taking over. The DPJ failed the competence test, however, and three years later Abe and the LDP got a second chance. Abe has had a productive run, but he and the LDP must address recent shortcomings aggressively or risk a more substantial breakdown of public support.
Additionally, Japan’s political opposition — now a shell of its former self and divided among multiple parties — has an important and potentially constructive role to play. Currently, part of the old DPJ and the new Party of Hope are working on a merger plan that aims to “realize as soon as possible a political system that enables a change of government.” Opposition politicians naturally see scandal as a chance to bash the party in power to make relative gains in popularity, but this time they should consider a more enlightened form of self-interest.
Precisely because governing competence is a perceived opposition weakness, these parties should work proactively and cooperatively with the LDP to address lapses in management and accountability. A top priority for opposition parties at the moment should be substantial capacity and trust building, which can improve their political prospects in the long run. It is notable that Yukio Edano’s Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), another opposition party established by liberal defectors from the DPJ, has so far distanced itself from the merger plan. Edano argues that a change of government is the result of good work and should not be the sole purpose of coalition building through kazuawase (or simply “adding up the number” of seats).
Moreover, reforms for document management and information disclosure have the potential to address some other opposition concerns. While the CDP strongly opposes the State Secrecy Law of 2013 and the security legislation of 2015, its “first-best” approach (i.e., repealing these laws) is virtually impossible. Even if the political left manages to take control of the Diet one day, such action would seriously disrupt the U.S.-Japan alliance and damage Japan’s own national interests, confirming doubts about the opposition’s reliability. Because of this, real administrative reform that enhances government transparency can be the “second-best” approach for the opposition to address its concerns. Meanwhile, under pressure to reform and with potentially willing — if still critical — opposition partners, the LDP should be open to incorporating some of their preferences.
Of course, the United States is no stranger to merciless politics that seem to prioritize point scoring against an opponent over what is best for the country. This dynamic has made a mess of U.S. government finances and contributed to rising income inequality that in part has fueled a populist backlash against globalism. Trump’s steel tariffs that so far include Japan are a byproduct of this political dysfunction, along with questions raised by Trump about the value of alliances, despite their long track-record of underwriting stability and contributing to American prosperity. Overcoming these “America First” reflexes and embracing alliances and partnerships around the world will benefit the United States’ long-term national interests, but this too requires an enlightened and well-functioning democracy.
The upcoming Trump-Abe summit will not deal directly with these underlying political issues, but their language on security cooperation, solidarity in the face of North Korean nuclear and missile threats, and mutually agreed steps to minimize protectionism in their economic relationship can send important messages back home about the strategic value of this bilateral relationship. It can contribute to stable international politics and economics that in turn benefit domestic democratic governance in the United States and Japan. There is a thin line between a positive and negative reinforcement cycle in the politics of bilateral relations, and navigating this successfully is part of the challenge facing Trump and Abe this week.
James L. Schoff is a Senior Fellow and Feng Lin is a Junior Fellow in the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.